Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United after the Premier League match against West Ham United Alamy Stock Photo

Permutations: What Man United and Liverpool need to do to secure a top-4 place

The Red Devils suffered a worrying defeat against West Ham at the weekend.

LIVERPOOL BOSS Jurgen Klopp was asked last Friday whether he thought his side could clinch the fourth Champions League spot at the expense of Manchester United.

His response was pessimistic.

“Other teams are in much better positions,” the German coach told reporters. “As long as they win games, we have no chance and we have to keep teams behind us, which (for) not all of them we can do that.

“We have 59 (points), United has 63 so we can get 71 maximum. United needs for that eight points in five, (eight points) from 15. I think they will do that.

“They win three games of the rest and that is it for us.”

Was Klopp being genuinely honest in his assessment of proceedings or was there a degree of managerial mind games in his answer?

Either way, the likelihood of Man United securing the all-important fourth spot and the major financial rewards that go with it has lessened slightly since then.

On Sunday, Erik ten Hag’s men produced an unconvincing display amid a 1-0 loss to West Ham — the second successive game in which they have been beaten by that scoreline.

Couple those two results with a poor second-half collapse in which they let a two-goal lead slip against Tottenham and the outlook is beginning to look very worrying indeed from a United supporter’s vantage point.

Moreover, as the Red Devils have appeared in danger of wilting, their bitter rivals have finally started to come good after a largely indifference season.

The morale-boosting 2-2 draw with title-challenging Arsenal appears to have served as a catalyst for Liverpool.

Since then, the Reds have shown a level of consistency conspicuously absent for much of the campaign, winning their last six league games on the bounce.

The way they are playing, it would no surprise if Liverpool claimed the maximum points from their final three games.

Their next match is away to relegation-threatened Leicester on Monday, with Dean Smith’s side currently in dire straits judging by Monday’s shambolic 5-3 loss against Fulham.

Five days later, they face an Aston Villa side who have shown serious signs of improvement under Unai Emery and are still in contention for a European spot, but at Anfield — where they have lost just once all season — you would fancy Klopp’s men to prevail.

The following weekend, Liverpool will travel to face a Southampton side whose relegation will almost certainly be confirmed by then, with Monday night’s loss to Nottingham Forest all but ending their hopes of survival.

So if Liverpool, as expected, take nine points from three games, what must United do?

A 100% finish to the season would leave Liverpool on 71 points.

Man United are currently on 63 points. Three wins will consequently ensure they finish above the Anfield outfit.

This is not an easy task but United’s favourable run-in means it looks eminently achievable.

What’s key is that three of their final four fixtures are at Old Trafford.

One of the positive aspects of Ten Hag’s reign is they have turned their home ground into something of a fortress of late.

At home this season, they have won 12, drawn three and lost once, which was as far back as the opening day against Brighton.

You could argue their home fixtures couldn’t be kinder as well, given that they face three mid-table teams with little left to play for — Wolves (13th), Chelsea (11th) and Fulham (10th).

Their one away match similarly is against a Bournemouth team who sit on 39 points currently and so have effectively already secured Premier League survival for another season.

That’s not to say a slip-up is inconceivable — anyone who watched the respective 4-0 and 7-0 defeats by Brentford and Liverpool earlier in the season knows how flaky and vulnerable United can be in pressurised situations.

But as it stands, the Red Devils justifiably remain the favourites to secure Champions League football.

And there is one scenario that would be even more surprising than Liverpool pipping United to a place in Europe’s premier club competition.

And that is, of course, the faint possibility of both sides finishing in the top four.

Newcastle sit just two points ahead of United currently and will know there is still work to be done.

So to ensure their place in next season’s Champions League, the Magpies, currently on 65 points, at most need two wins and a draw from their last four matches.

Their run-in is arguably the toughest of the trio, though it’s still not exactly daunting.

Eddie Howe’s men face relegation-threatened Leeds this weekend, before five days later hosting a Brighton side whose own European hopes suffered a major setback amid Monday’s 5-1 loss to Everton.

The Seagulls themselves could technically secure a Champions League spot still, though it would require at least two of their rivals to collapse, as the most they can finish on is 70 points.

Newcastle, meanwhile, finish their campaign with matches at home to relegation-threatened Leicester (22 May) and away to Chelsea (28 May).

Eddie Howe’s side have been playing well enough lately — winning eight of their last 10 league matches — to suggest they are certain to claim the seven points necessary from those final four fixtures to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since the 2002-03 season back when Bobby Robson was their manager and Ireland’s Shay Given was among their key players.

Tottenham and Aston Villa, meanwhile, can still mathematically qualify for Champions League football, but realistically, they are so far behind that the Europa League is the best they can hope for at this stage.

Premier League top-four race as it stands

3rd: Newcastle (65 points, 34 games played)

4th: Man United (63 points, 34 games played)

5th: Liverpool (62 points, 35 games played)

Remaining fixtures involving realistic top-four contenders

Newcastle: Leeds away, Brighton home, Leicester home, Chelsea away.

Man United: Wolves home, Bournemouth away, Chelsea home, Fulham home.

Liverpool: Leicester away, Aston Villa home, Southampton away.

Prediction: Newcastle and Man United to finish in the top four.

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